Julia Conley, Common Dreams
Thursday’s reporting on a real estate deal made by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett months after her confirmation in 2020 was the latest evidence, said a government watchdog, that ethics reforms at the high court must either be imposed by the judiciary or Congress.
Days after ProPublica reported on Justice Samuel Alito’s previously undisclosed private jet trip—funded by a billionaire hedge fund owner whose business has been involved in numerous Supreme Court cases—CNN revealed that Barrett has had financial dealings with the Religious Liberty Initiative (RLI) at Notre Dame Law School.
A Note Dame professor who had just taken a leadership role at RLI purchased Barrett’s private home months after she was sworn in in October 2020.
The group, which advocates for religious freedom, was founded in 2020 and has filed numerous amicus briefs in cases related to the issue—related to questions surrounding abortion, public health precautions, and school prayer—since it was established. RLI has filed at least nine briefs with the court since the sale of Barrett’s home.
The newly reported conflict of interest is one of several in recent months that have brought renewed scrutiny to the fact that the Supreme Court justices are not required to abide by an ethics code, as other federal judges are.
“The endless drip of shady and corrupt Supreme Court dealings just further underscores the need for reform,” said Kyle Herrig, president of the watchdog group Accountable.US. “Every federal judge is bound to an ethics code requiring them to avoid behavior that so much as looks improper, except for Supreme Court justices. Chief Justice Roberts has the power to change that, but so far he hasn’t shown the courage. If he fails to do his job, Congress must do theirs.”
CNN also reported Thursday that RLI funded a previously reported trip Alito took to Rome shortly after the court overturned Roe v. Wade, stripping millions of people across the U.S. of the right to abortion care. In Rome, the right-wing justice mocked critics of the ruling, which has been decried as a violation of international law by human rights experts.
Alito ruled in favor of RLI’s positions stated in its amicus briefs in several cases, and neither judge has recused themselves from a number of high-profile cases involving the Initiative.
In recent months, government watchdogs have demanded accountability for alleged ethics breaches and conflicts of interest at the Supreme Court, including Justice Clarence Thomas‘ financial ties to Republican megadonor Harlan Crow.
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing last month to make the case for legislation that would require the high court to follow an ethics code.
Although Barrett’s home sale may not have violated any rules, Indiana University law professor Charles Geyh told Accountable.US, it adds to the “perception problem” regarding the justices’ ethics.
“It is addressed by the court being much more vigilant in guarding against perception problems created by [the justices’] financial wheelings and dealings,” Geyh said, “and going the extra mile to make sure that they not only are clean, but look clean.”